Christine Van Boheemen, ‘Joyce’s Sublime Body’, in Joycean Cultures/Culturing Joyces (1998)

Bibliographical details: Christine Van Boheemen, ‘Joyce’s Sublime Body’, in Joycean Cultures/Culturing Joyces, ed. Vincent J. Cheng, Kimberly J. Devlin & Margot Norris [transactions of conference at Univ. of California (Delaware UP; AUP 1998), pp.23-43. See also Van Boheemen-Saaf, ‘Joyce in Theory/Theory in Joyce’, in James Joyce, ed. Sean Latham [Visions & Revisions Ser.] (Dublin & Portland: IAP 2010), pp.153-69 [infra].

Begins with reference to the case of Edmond Laforest, a prominent member of the Haiti an La Ronde movement, who committed suicide in the Seine by weighing himself down with a copy of Larousse: ‘What Laforest’s mutely fatal act expresses is the painful dilemma of the writer of a minority culture inheriting the language of the oppressor [...] In our sudden discover of Joyce as a nationalist, postcolonialist author, we run the risk of reessentialising language as teh effect of Blut and Boden. In [23] either case, we ignore his pain - the pain of linguistic dispossession, of the radical severance at the point of origin that belongs to growing up Irish.’ (pp.23-24.)

‘The avoidance of pain, or death, or disfigurement, the awareness of mutability and embodied existence in general, would seem itself a characteristic feature of late-twentieth-century culture. This narcissism is, in turn, a form of belated complicity with Eugene Jolas’s proclamation of a new linguistic reality. His “new artist of the word,” recognizing the “autonomy of language,” had “hammer[ed out] a verbal vision that destroys time and space [Eugene Jolas, “James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word”, in Our Exagmination [... &c.], 1929, NY 1972, p.79.]. Even Joyce himself (and not just Stephen Dedalus) might be understood as a votary to a poetics of linguistic transcendence in desiring a “language which is above all languages, a language to which all do service,” [Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 1982 Rev. Edn., p.397] betraying the dream of an ahistorical language, unmarked by difference or local embodiment.

‘Finnegans Wake may well be considered the product of such an idea of language - an essential image beyond national language, time, and space; but its complex textuality also forces the reader to the realization that language cannot do mute service to the projection of a transcendent, disembodied subjectivity. It constantly rubs the reader’s nose in his or her limitations as a reader, and in our imprisonment in the linguistic web. Read with awareness, Finnegans Wake is a cure for narcissism. It forces even nonnative speakers of English into reading it out loud with an Irish accent.

‘What strikes me as ironic is that the more pressing and clear this pedagogy becomes, the more that same text seems to serve as fetish to alleviate the very castration anxiety that it evokes and illustrates. It provides an ideal playground in which to forget that, for all its linguistic display, even Finnegans Wake is the product of flesh, blood, sweat, and pain - no creativity, especially not such obsessive creativity, without pain. In what follows, I have chosen to try to articulate the, obsessiveness of Joyce#3’s engagement with language - in connection with his obsessive fascination with speech about the body - as a symptom of loss, a record of trauma.’ (pp.23-24.)

Discusses the ‘discursive mission’ of Wyndham Lewis and others, including André Breton and to ‘transform ... sexuality into perpetual discourse’ (Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, 1978, p.33), ‘[c]onvincing ourselves that we have never said enough on the subject, that, through inertia or submissiveness, we conceal from ourselves the blinding evidence, [we believe] that what is essential always eludes us’ ... forcing back the limits of linguistic encroachment on the body, all the while reinforcing the signifying power of ‘sex, the explanation of everything, our master key’ (Ibid., 78).

Summarises Lacan: ‘in his essay on Joyce, Jacques Lacan diagnoses the distinctiveness of Joyce’s textuality as the drive to flaunt what usually remains the repressed motivation in human language use: the fear of death, the resistance against being body, hence against our dwelling (to abuse a Heideggerian term) in and as mutable flesh. We escape the prison of pure embodiment through the detour of signification and language, thus seemingly rising above it. Joyce, according to Lacan, makes this function of language as stepladder to seeming transcendence the focus of his writing. The peculiar deviance of Finnegans Wake is to Lacan the successful symptom of the refusal to face and accept the symbolic castration of the dependence. Lacan spoke of Joyce’s textuality as a variant of the symptom, the “sinthome” that entails the binding of primal pleasure to language use.’ (p.26; refers to Lacan, Joyce avec Lacan, ed Jacques Aubert, n.p. Paris 1987.) Further: ‘language veils the body which it covers as a bandage veils an open wound.’ (p.27.)

Van Boheemen isolates Stephen Dedalus’s loss of virginity in A Portrait as a passive rather than an active experience (viz., ‘he suffered the agony of its penetration’, and concludes: ‘[T]he representation of sexuality in Joyce is never, or can never be intended to excite the reader, precisely because he refuses to collude with the gaze that makes a penis into a phallus.’ (p.28.) Cites D. H. Lawrence’s Lady [Connie] Chatterley to the contrary: ‘I know it is the penis which connects us with the stars and the sea and everything. It is the penis which touches the planets, and makes us feel their special light.’ (Quoted in Stephen Heath, The Sexual Fit, 1982).

Describes the union of Tristran and Iseult in the Wake (FW395) as an staging of the ‘ideological construction of the commodified representation of sexuality [which] reveals the structuring framework of fantasy, its roots in the technology of the visual [...]’ and treats Bloom’s keyhole hallucination of Boylan with Marion (‘Show! Hide! Show!’) as ‘emphasising the violent complicity between the construction of the penis as phallus and the cult and technology of visibility.’ (p.29.)

‘As Hugh Kenner once argued, wandering is one of Stephen’s ways of resolving conflict. What seems to play here, however, is more than just a tendency to take long walks; the precarious alignment of body and emotion in extreme circumstances suggests that linguistic subjectivity is at times dissolved by emotion so powerful that it sets the body off in flight to recover itself and escape the emotion.’ (p.31.)

‘My conclusion is that Stephen Dedalus must be in extreme (physical or mental) pain right from the beginning, but that that pain is not accessible to consciousness because, as we noted, Stephen registers physical sensation, even sexual initiation, already and only as “vague speech” The body in A Portrait is no longer the locus of sentience; its territory has been occupied by language. Stephen can only imagine (not experience) sentience via the detour of language. [Quotes PA: “[...] There were different kinds of pain for all the different kinds of sounds [... &c.]”] What the body is useful for, to Stephen, is to help him achieve a sense of aesthetic transcendence at moments of extreme alienation , by existing as an instrument to manipulate sound. [...] Once in a while this defence structure breaks down, as when the letters “foetus” carved on a desk or “les jupes” uttered by the priest causes violent emotion. If sentience is displaced upon language, the original pain is displaced on the vision [33] of the bodies of others [...] no wonder Stephen experience of sexual excitement as a form of rape. It pierces the protective envelope of language [...] ’ (p.33-34.)

On “Pull out his eyes” [Portrait, p.8]: ‘the threat to Stephen’s physical integrity, the impending pain, sends language into a spinning turmoil, which in it chiasmic pattern of crossing over and redoubling instigates infinite repetition. The experience is rendered overwhelming, annihilating, hence unconcluded and inconclusive; the young child is confronted with anxiety so massive that there is no response possible.’ (p.35.)

‘in the case of Stephen Dedalus, that working out [i.e., bearing witness to the ...trauma] must take place in the language of the oppressor and entails an inescapable bondage to the voice: “His father’s whistle, his mother’s mutterings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices, offending nd threatening to humble the pride of his youth”. [Portrait, 175; ...] The web of voices, internal and external, of flesh and culture, becomes a labyrinth in which the subject “walks through himself” [Ulysses, 9.1004-46], enacting the dubious/dividual drama of his symbolic wound that can be neither denied nor articulated, inviting and seeking the return of the unspeakable in the self.’ (p.36.)

Boheemen reads HCE as Here I Come, Here Comes the Ear (p.39.)

‘[...] we can see Stephen not as an individual case of pathology, but as a “representative man” - representative of the Irish condition and by extension of our modernity, sentience, and a self-extension, body and language - intention and text do not move in radically different universes as poststructuralist theory would seem to suggest. Joyce’s aesthetic centres on the body.’ (p.39.)

‘[...] our culture uses sense organs as loci for truth [...] I binding the voice to the eye, in yoking one to the other, Joyce should not be seen as providing a Hegelian reconciliation of Jewish and Christian metaphors of truth. Such a conclusion would fail to do justice to Joyce’s recalcitrant and fearful elusiveness. The aim of “verbivocovisual presentment” [FW 341.19] is not a new truth, or another kind of truth, but a focus on the process that channels physical energy into the service of organ-rationalised ideology, colonising the body and its sentience to make it chattel of the idea. [...] Joyce’s linguistic impetus is that of witnessing, a demonstrative act of the [39] affect that binds body to language - a witnessing that itself tries to remain noncomplicit in the atrocity to which it testifies ’ (p.39.)

Refers to the spoof séance in “Cyclops” - ‘talafana alavatar, hatakalda wataklasat’ [Ulysses, 12.359]: ‘[...] how economically, by the simple means of a wide, horizontal, diacritical material mark, the author deflates and counters our drive to forget the body. Spirit, the idea of spirit, so the text would seem to say, is only viable and possible owing to our self-extended use of matter, writing - here the diacritical mark marking the vowels as if with a halo; but however much spirit may deem to have transcended its physical nature, in Joyce all spirit remains the self-extension of matter. Joyce’s spirit still needs elevators and water closets.’ (end; p.41.)

Bibl. [add. to above] incls. Wyndham Lewis, “Our Wild Body”, in The Complete Wild Body, ed. Bernard Lafourcade (Santa Barbara 1982), p.251.; Lewis, Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography, ed. Toby Foshay (Santa Barbara 1984); Richard Brown, James Joyce and Sexuality (Cambridge UP 1985); Vincent J. Cheng, ‘“Goddinpotty”: James Joyce and the Language of Excrement’, in The Languages of Joyce, ed., R. M. Bolletieri Bosinelli, C. Merengo Vaglio & Christine van Boheemen (Amsterdam & Phil. 1993), p.85; Joseph A. Boone, ‘Representing Interiority: Spaces of Sexuality in Ulysses’, in Bosinelli, et al., op. cit. (1993), p.80; Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (NY & Oxford 1985); J. Laplanche & J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London 1983); Helene Cixous, “Devant le pome” , in James Joyce: Cahiers de L'Herne (Paris 1985), 193-203; van Boheemen, The Novel as Family Romance (Ithaca 1987); John Bishop, Joyce's Book of the Dark: Finnegans Wake (Madison, Wisc. 1986); Shoshana Felman & Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (NY & London 1992).

[ close ] [ top ]